“A portkey is an object enchanted to instantly bring anyone touching it to a specific location.” — Harry Potter Wiki
In our world, more often than not, a portkey is a good book, bewitched with spells to whisk you away into a world of wonder, despair, pain, happiness, frustration, hunger, anticipation, and hope. Over the past few years, a few such books have captured my imagination and I have allowed myself to be hijacked to places – some horrific, some enchanting, but all interesting and illustrative. Some, I suspect, I never fully returned from.
My work as an environmental photographer and writer who is focused on documenting the effect of changes in land-use and river-use on ecosystems and communities informs my reading habits. In this list, therefore, you may find an inclination towards freshwater issues, grassland preservation, health issues, and climate change.
When Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce
If you have any curiosity about how we got to where we are with our rivers, look no further. Hop-scotching across the world, Pearce tells us stories of thoughtless hubris, ancient wisdom, and rare contemporary sanity, all the time throwing into relief the choices before us today.
Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia
Journey up the Indus and into its turbulent history, in this book which reads like a traveller’s narrative but is packed with information. Alice explores myth, lore, and anthropogenic activities along the river, including disastrous extractions and diversions of water upstream that are killing the Indus delta.
Tom’s River by Dan Fagin
This book won the Pulitzer a couple years ago. Read it to be plunged into the stinking netherworlds of chemical pollution of our rivers and groundwater. In a brilliant weaving of history and science, Fagin unfurls the fabric of our lives in the age of large, powerful corporations.
Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg & End of the Line by Charles Clover
These books throw light on how our appetite for fish is decimating the oceans.
Witness to Extinction by Samuel Turvey
This is a sad story from China, one with loud lessons for our unheeding ears, about the loss of the Yangtze River dolphin, the Baiji.
Crossing Open Ground, About This Life, and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
If you like lyrical prose and studying landscapes, Lopez’s books are for you. In a series of essays in ‘Crossing Open Ground’, Lopez explores man’s relationship with nature in North America through the ages. ‘About This Life’ is also a book of essays in which there are a couple I want to call out: ‘American Geographies’, about the importance of local knowledge and of understanding particular geographies, and ‘Learning to See’, which takes us into Lopez’s own erstwhile career as a photographer and his reasons for giving it up. Both essays have special learnings for us in India, today – as citizens, photographers, or storytellers.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
One of my favourite books, one I keep going back to — to quote from and to read simply for his observations of the natural world. In this book Leopold uses tree rings to trace the environmental history of place and exhort us to regain a lost land ethic.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
I spent ten years of my life in the desert southwest in the United States. This book by Edward Abbey is not only a portkey to that breathtaking landscape, but also exhorts us to adopt an ethic different from one where nature is expected to be on tap, served up on weekends.
Tropic of Chaos by Christian Parenti
A wide-sweeping tale of how ground-level degradation and inequities are exacerbated by the looming perils of climate change, this book is unputdownable.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong
We see and read so much about wolves and livestock and grasslands and agriculture. This book brings it all together, slightly other-worldly but wholly grounded — if you know what I mean — and becomes a parable for our times. To read and to heed.
The Big Conservation Lie by John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada
This bold, myth-busting book upends widely held beliefs about Kenyan (and African) conservation efforts. Calling out rampant racism and an elitist “white” model of conservation for sidelining and undermining the locals, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in and frequenting East Africa.
Spillover by David Quammen
Quammen unpacks the science behind zoonotic diseases and their history, in this gripping, terrifying and enlightening book. A must-read if one is interested in health, medicine, or hygiene — which should be all of us!
I’m going to throw in a few long-form articles on natural history; they are as delightful as they come.
A Deep Intellect by Sy Montgomery
If you had never considered the world of cephalopods seriously until now, upon reading this, you will.
The Squid Hunter by David Grann
If you fell head over tentacles in love with Athena in ‘A Deep Intellect’, here’s some more cephalopod love. This one is about the elusive giant squid.
Chasing Bayla by Sarah Schweitzer
One more article from the deep sea, about a scientist’s bid to save the right whale.
There are a couple more articles that I want to include as readings that have moved my core or informed me in ways invaluable.
The Naturalist by Barry Lopez
This one by Barry Lopez on being a naturalist is a must-read.
How to Read Landscapes by William Cronon
Following on from ‘The Naturalist’, this is further essential reading.
Whitefoot by Wendell Berry
Have you heard of Wendell Berry, an American poet, novelist, activist, and farmer? No one speaks more sense when it comes to human landscapes and farming than does Berry. An old classic of his is ‘The Unsettling of America’. Dig it up if you feel up to reading solid common sense and about an ecological land ethic. But here, I want to point you to a delightful short story he has written in Orion Magazine, about the journey of a little mouse, Whitefoot.
An assortment of portkeys scatter by my bedside, in various stages of being sampled and experienced: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Indica by Pranay Lal, Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben with an Introduction by Pradip Krishen, Winter Count by Barry Lopez, In The Land of the Blue Poppies by Frank Kingdon-Ward (my reference book for natural history in the eastern Himalayas), Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan, and Barkskins by Annie Proulx.
What portkeys have you enjoyed lately? Which worlds have you travelled to?